Dean’s Letter: Church Spaces

Hello St. Paul’s,

The opening of our expanded chancel has been a great improvement for the congregation. While we still have some work to do regarding light and sound for the clergy, choir, and altar party, I am enjoying the spacious feel of our worship space. One of my concerns as we moved back into the larger space was that the children who hang out in the prayground might feel distant from the altar, but this is proving not to be the case. Maya reports that the altar is more visible for the children now, and last Sunday we had no fewer than nine young children who sat on the chancel steps throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, watching every move we made and mirroring our actions with their child-size Communion elements. It is a joy to behold these young faces as they watch and absorb and imitate the Eucharistic actions.

The even younger children who stay with their parents in the Prayground are also absorbing the rhythms of worship, even if they appear not to be paying attention. Child developmental experts tell us that many children need to have something to do with their hands while they are also listening to a parent, teacher, or priest. The brain seems to have something comparable to peripheral vision, where it receives and processes input without consciously focusing on it. I am deeply grateful for Maya’s vision in creating our Prayground and giving our children the opportunity to be immersed in our shared faith. Incidentally, Maya also reports that whenever she attends a meeting of Christian formation leaders, whether in person or online, someone always asks about creating a prayground. While we didn’t invent the concept, St. Paul’s is certainly a leader in developing and promoting it.

The Episcopal Church has insider language for many items, and it can take time for both children and adults to learn our specialized vocabulary. Churches are traditionally built on an east-west axis, with the altar at the east end. Here are some terms we use for different areas of the church building, going from west (Fifth Avenue side) to east.

The Narthex is the area just inside the doors at the back of the church: it’s a space for preparing ourselves for worship, transitioning from the world outside to the holy space we are entering.

The Font, from a word meaning a spring of water, is the holder of water for baptism. A font traditionally has eight sides, reflecting the ancient interpretation of the day of resurrection as the eighth day of Creation, as well as reminding us of the eight people who were saved from drowning in the great flood of Genesis.

The Nave, a word that comes from the Latin for “ship”, is the main portion of the church where the congregation sits. You can think of us being in the Ark with Noah and his family.

The Chancel is the area where the choir and clergy sit. It is raised up a few steps from the Nave, and may be separated from the Nave by a Rood Screen, a partial or complete barrier topped by a Crucifix. “Rood” in this sense is from an old English word for the Cross. St. Paul’s used to have a Rood Screen, many decades ago.

The Sanctuary is the part of the church behind the altar rail. In our case, the Chancel and the Sanctuary are the same space. In other denominations, the Sanctuary refers to the entire church – narthex, nave, and Chancel; but for Episcopalians it’s simply the area behind the altar rail.

Finally, we have different names for different representations of the Cross. A Cross with a dying or dead Jesus on it is a Crucifix (meaning literally fixed to the Cross). A Cross with the risen Christ dressed in priest’s vestments is called a Christus Rex, or Christ the King: this is the type of Cross we have suspended over the Chancel.

That’s enough arcane vocabulary for now; see you on Sunday!

Your sister in Christ,

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1 thought on “Dean’s Letter: Church Spaces”

  1. I thought that I was pretty familiar with the terminology, but there’s some new words for me to learn here. Thanks for the lesson, Dean Penny!


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